Rocket Lab moves CAPSTONE launch to New Zealand

WASHINGTON – A smallsat NASA mission to test the orbit that will be used by the lunar gateway will be launched from New Zealand and not Virginia as originally planned.

Rocket Lab announced on August 6 that it will launch the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) mission on an Electron rocket from its Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand in the fourth quarter. When Rocket Lab won the NASA contract to launch CAPSTONE in February 2020, it planned to launch the mission from its Launch Complex 2 in Wallops Island, Virginia.

In its statement, Rocket Lab did not explain the change in launch sites. “Flexible is not a word commonly used to describe lunar missions, but operating two launch complexes gives us the freedom to select a site that best meets the requirements and timing of the mission,” said Peter. Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab.

However, CAPSTONE would be Rocket Lab’s second mission in recent weeks to move from Virginia to New Zealand. Electron’s most recent July 26 launch was placed into orbit Monolith, a small satellite developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory. Monolith was originally intended to be launched during the first Electron mission from Virginia.

Rocket Lab said at the time that it had delayed the launch of Monolith due to ongoing work by NASA to certify the software for the rocket’s autonomous flight termination system. A NASA spokesperson said in July that the agency plans to complete certification of the unit by the end of the year.

The Electron will carry CAPSTONE, a small 25-kilogram satellite developed by Colorado-based Advanced Space, attached to a Photon spacecraft. Photon will use its HyperCurie engine to place CAPSTONE on a path to the moon, separating approximately seven days after launch. CAPSTONE will then use its own hydrazine propulsion system to move in a nearly rectilinear halo orbit around the moon, the same orbit that will be used by the lunar gateway.

NASA will use CAPSTONE to test orbit stability, verifying the propulsion patterns needed to maintain orbit. CAPSTONE will also test spacecraft-to-spacecraft navigation technology.

CAPSTONE’s development is on schedule. Advanced Space said in an Aug. 2 statement that they have completed the second in a series of operations readiness tests, real-time simulations of mission operations.

“This comprehensive readiness test illustrates our team’s ability to focus on performing the mission in challenging environments,” Brad Cheetham, Managing Director of Advanced Space, said in the company statement. “This mission really shows the benefits of collaboration between NASA and industry.”

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